Thursday, December 9, 2021

Briefs on Hindustani musical instruments


The classification of instruments: Around 3000 BC, the Chinese are known to have classified musical instruments based on the material from which they were made. Stone, wood, leather, bamboo, copper, silk etc. This classification reflected the crafts that were involved in making/ repairing/ maintaining them. 

Around 200 BC, the Natyashastra written by Bharata classified them in the basis of the principle of sound production. (i) Tata = string activation instruments (ii) Susheera = wind activated instruments (iii) Ghana = activated by vibration of solid materials (iv) Avanaddha = activated by vibration of leather cladding. In the 17th century, scholars recognized the emergence of new instruments, and introduced a fifth category: Tat-avanaddha = activated by vibration of strings, and also supported by a leather cladding. 

In the 20th century, organologists (scholars who study musical instruments) adopted the Natyashastra framework and classified instruments into (i) Chordophones = string instruments (ii) Aerophones = wind instruments (iii) Ideophones = solid resonators (iv) Membranophones = membrane clad instruments, and (v) Electrophones = electrically activated resonators. 

Bansuri (Transverse bamboo flute): The emergence of the Bansuri as a major instrument in Hindustani music is entirely a 20th century phenomenon. Until the arrival of Pannalal Ghosh (1911-1960), there existed a multitude of bamboo flutes in India, none of which was suitable for performing Raga-based Hindustani music in the post-amplification acoustic environment. After extensive experimentation, Ghosh designed the Classical Bansuri which remains, to this day, the standard design for classical music performance. As a flautist, Ghosh brought to the instrument his training in various genres under the redoubtable Guru, Allauddin Khan. The rich repertoire he performed on the Bansuri ensured  a durable future  in Hindustani music for the instrument.

Harmonium : A member of the keyboard based family of free-reed aerophones. Although such instruments have existed in India and other parts of Asia for centuries, Christian missionaries probably introduced the Harmonium to India in the eighteenth century, as accompaniment for choirs in Churches. The original import was a platform mounted pedal-primed version which was later replaced with a portable hand-pumped variant with 37 keys to suit Indian requirements. Despite the incompatibility of its tempered scale with Indian intonation practices, the instrument is now the most widely used melodic accompaniment to all genres of vocal music (other than dhrupad/dhamàra) and has replaced the Sarangi in this role. Attempts to establish it as a solo instrument have met with only limited success.

Indian classical guitar/Hindustani slide guitar : The Indian classical guitar/Hindustani slide guitar is an adaptation of the Western F-Hole guitar, modified to meet the requirements of Hindustani [north Indian] art music. The instrument was introduced to Hindustani music in the 1960s by Pandit Brijbhushan Kabra,  a disciple of the Sarod maestro, Ustad Ali Akbar Khan. In terms of technique of melodic execution, the Indian classical guitar and the Hawaiian guitar are both heirs to the ancient Indian fretless stick-zithers, the Ekatantri Veena, the Ghoshaka, and the Vichitra Veena. 

According to some accounts, the technique of these ancient instruments traveled to Hawaii with one Gabriel Davion, kidnapped from India to Honolulu by a sea captain in the nineteenth century. The technique gave birth to the Hawaiian guitar, which returned to India before Second World War through the recordings of American guitarists, Sol Hoopii and Joe Kaipo. The instrument was first adopted by bands in Calcutta, entered film music thereafter, and finally entered classical music  in the 1960s. 

 Jala Taranga : The word is derived from Sanskrit jala = water + taranga = waves. The term describes an ancient Indian polychord of the struck variety, consisting of 12/15 china-clay bowls of different sizes, which are tuned to a ràga-scale by filling them with appropriate quantities of water. Sound activation is done by beating the cups with sticks akin to sticks used for drums used in popular Western music. The instrument receives mention in musicological texts only from the late seventeenth century and is now nearly extinct, appearing occasionally in orchestral ensembles.

Kashta Taranga : The word is derived from Sanskrit kashta = wood + taranga = waves. The term describes an ancient polychord of the struck variety, an Indian version of a xylophone. Sound activation is done by impacting wooden strips of different sizes with sticks with rounded heads. The instrument is nearly extinct, now encountered occasionally in orchestral ensembles.

 Kinnari/Kinnari Veena : The word kinnari is an adjective derived from the Sanskrit kinnara, meaning a category of celestial being. Kinnara also denotes a community of professional musicians. The word kinnari may be construed either as an adjective derived from kinnara, or translated as as female kinnara. In the present context, it refers to an ancient instrument, a member of the fretted stick-zither family, which is considered the ancestor of the Rudra Veena. Kinnari Veena were of two varieties: the Brihat [great/major] kinnari which had three gourds (chamber resonators), and the laghu [small/minor] kinnari, which had only two. The laghu kinnari is believed to be the direct parent of the Rudra Veena.

Nagàrà/ Nakkara : The nagàrà belongs to the family of indigenous kettle-drums used as rhythmic accompaniment to the Shehnai. The shell of these drums was originally formed on a potter's wheel, but later cast in metal -- mainly copper or a copper alloy. The drums come in pairs of pan-like vessels, covered with a membrane of goat skin. Though their sound is atonal, one is a bass drum, while the other - the smaller - is a treble drum. They are struck with sticks.

Different sizes of Nagara pairs are known to be in use, the choice being dictated by the need for the volume of the output. In addition to their role as accompaniment to the Shehnai, they have also enjoyed an independent adrenalin-pumping and heralding function in military ceremonies of the feudal era, either on their own, or in conjunction with other ceremonial instruments. Though played with sticks, the nagàrà has evolved a sophisticated idiom, which has also influenced the idiom of the Tabla, an instrument of far superior musical capability.

Pakhàwaj : [also called Mrudanga]: The name derives from the Sanskrit : Paksha = sides + vàdya = a musical instrument, which dates back to the pre-Christian era, with its origins shrouded in mythology. The pakhàwaj, a horizontal two-faced tapering cylindrical drum, was the principal percussion instrument of the Hindustani [North Indian] art music tradition, until the advent of the tablà. Both sides of the Pakhawaj are covered with goat-skin and tuned, at each performance, by laying, in the centre of each face, a fresh paste of wheat-flour. This coating regulates its acoustic output. The instrument emits an atonal, bass sound. It remains, to this day, the standard rhythmic accompaniment to performances of the dhrupad/dhamàra genre, but has no presence in the modern genres of art music. 

Other two-faced barrel drums descended from the pakhàwaj are, however, still used in popular and folk music. The pakhàwaj of the Hindustani [north Indian] tradition corresponds to the mrudangam in the Carnatic [south Indian] tradition, though the two differ in construction and design, and substantially in idiom.

Rabab : The Rabab is an instrument of the short-necked fretless lute family, played by plucking. It has a carved wooden body, with the lower half covered by goat-skin, and the upper half with a wooden finger board. It uses catgut strings and is plucked with a triangular plectrum. The Rabab came to India from two sources. The first Rabab, a larger instrument, came from Persia with conquering armies around the eleventh century. The second, a smaller instrument of similar construction, came from Afghanistan with soldiers in the employ of early Moguls. 

The Persian Rabab became a significant performer of the dhrupad genre during the Mogul period, while the Afghan Rabab participated in the evolution of post-dhrupad genres during the nineteenth century. Though no longer performed in Hindustani music, the two Rababs are significant because they are the ancestors of the contemporary sarod, and have had a lasting influence on its idiom.

Rudra Veena : [Also called Been]. A member of the fretted stick-zither family of plucked instruments. A revered instrument with strong mythological and mystical associations. Evolved around the thirteenth century when frets were added to a fretless predecessor. The instrument is associated with the mediaeval dhrupad/dhamàr genre of music. It was originally used as accompaniment to vocal performances, but later acquired its independent performing domain.  The Rudra Veena has been the principal inspiration -acoustic as well as stylistic - for the evolution of the plucked instruments performed in contemporary Hindustani [north Indian] art music. 

As dhrupad receded from centre-stage of art music, the Rudra Veena surrendered its place to modern instruments which were ergonomically more efficient, and could adapt themselves to the contemporary acoustic and stylistic environment. The Dhrupad revival, which began in the 1960s, gave the instrument a fresh lease of life on the concert platform.  

Santoor: A member of the box-polychord family of struck instruments, and related to the hammered dulcimer/cimbalom family of instruments found in several parts of Asia and Europe. Originated most likely in India as Shtatantri Shata = 100 + Tantri = strings +  Veena = a stringed instrument] or in Persia as Santoor [san/sad = 100 + toor= strings]. It was traditionally performed only in the Kashmir valley in India as accompaniment for religious chants of the Islamic Sufi sects. In the latter half of the twentieth century, it was re-engineered and elevated to the concert platform as a solo instrument by Pandit Shivkumar Sharma.

Sarangi : A member of the short-necked lute family of bowed instruments. An instrument of considerable antiquity and almost certainly of Indian origin. For centuries, the instrument (known by several names, and in several forms) has been used by bards and roving minstrels for accompanying themselves. It entered art music around the seventeenth century, and has been an accompaniment to the modern genres of vocal music – Thumree and the allied romanticist genres, Tappa, and the mainstream Khayàl

Though once also accepted as an accompanist also to Dhrupad vocalism, the Sarangi has lost favour with Dhrupad establishment in recent years. The Sarangi is also emerging as a solo instrument, and acquiring an international following. The number of Sarangi exponents is, however, shrinking since the emergence of the harmonium as the dominant accompaniment to almost all genres of vocal music.

Sarasvati Veena : The name derives from Sarasvati, the Hindu goddess of learning and the fine arts, whose iconographic representation invariably shows her holding a long-necked fretted lute. The term Sarasvati Veena refers to the fretted lute popular in Carnatic [south Indian] tradition of art music. At one stage, the Hindustani [north Indian] Rudra Veena (organologically, a stick-zither) was also occasionally called a Sarasvati Veena. However, the two instruments are now clearly distinguished by their respective names and association with different deities. The two instruments differ in design and construction, but have near-identical histories, and are of comparable antiquity. Both started as accompaniment to vocal music, and later also acquired solo performance status.

Sarod : A member of the short-necked fretless lute family of plucked instruments. The Sarod has two identifiable ancestors - a Persian instrument called Rabab which came to India around the eleventh century, and the Kàbuli [Afghan] Rabab, which came to India around the thirteenth century. The art of the Rabab received great support from the Mogul court [fifteenth-eighteenth centuries]. The present physical form of the Sarod evolved from the Rabab in the early years of the twentieth century, but gave birth to two different designs of the instrument, attributable broadly to its two distinct ancestors.

Shankha: Shankha is Sanskrit for a large conch shell. It is a horn, which cannot produce any melody and emits only a single tone unique to its acoustic properties. It is generally blown either as an offering to God accompanying the signing of prayers and drums, or at the beginning and end of religious ceremonies. Mythological references also associate the instrument with the declaration of war in the battlefield.

Shehnai: The word probably derives from Persian Shah = king + nai = pipe. The instrument played in India is, however, almost certainly of Indian origin. The instrument belongs to the oboe family of beating-reed aerophones. The Carnatic tradition hosts a near-identical instrument, Nagaswaram, which is also primarily a ceremonial instrument. Both enjoy the status of the most preferred instrument at religious ceremonies and public celebrations. As such, this family could be the single most widely heard instrument in India. 

In its traditional role, the Shehnai addresses involuntary audiences of indeterminate aesthetic cultivation. Consequently, its traditional repertoire has been dominated by regional and folk genres of music. In the latter half of the twentieth century, Bismillah Khan elevated the instrument to the art music platform. The instrument is heading for extinction, as its traditional ceremonial clientele moves towards pre-recorded music, brass-bands and orchestral ensembles, and the film/popular music industry (once its major client) goes electronic.

Sitar : A member of the long-necked fretted lute family of plucked instruments. The theory crediting its evolution from a Persian instrument called “Sehtar” [lit: three strings] in the thirteenth century by Ameer Khusro, now stand discredited. Instruments of this variety have existed all over India for centuries before Ameer Khusro. Recent research attributes the systematic development of the instrument to Fakir Khusro Khan [eighteenth century], the brother of Niamat Khan Sadarang, a landmark figure in the evolution of the khayàl genre of vocalism. In three centuries since its entry into the mainstream, the Sitar has become the most popular instrument performed in Hindustani music.  

Sur-Shehnai : A member of the beating-reed Oboe family of instruments. It is used as a drone accompaniment to a Shehnai recital, either along with a Tanpura or even exclusively. In design and construction, it is identical to the Shehnai, the only difference being it has only one hole punched into its stem for delivering a single svara/tone/pitch, which is the tonic to which the lead-Shehnai player's instrument is tuned.

Surbahar: A member of the long-necked fretted lute family of plucked instruments. The Surbahar is a bass-Sitar, near-identical in construction to the Sitar, though enlarged to scale. The invention of the Surbahar, around 1825, is attributed variously to Sahebdad Khan, (great grandfather of the 20th century Sitar maestro, Vilayat Khan), and to a lesser-known sitàrist, Ghulam Mohammed. Scholarly opinion favors the latter attribution. 

In the early years of the Sitar’s evolution, Sitàrists conceived the Surbahar as a specialist instrument for presenting the prefatory àlàp-jod-jhàlà movements, derived from the idiom of the rudra veena [Been]. Twenitieth century improvements in the acoustic and melodic capabilities of the Sitar have driven the Surbahar towards extinction.

Sur Singar : Sursingar is a member of the short-necked fretless lute family of plucked instruments. It represents a short-lived late-nineteenth century attempt at driving the acoustic and melodic capabilities of the Afghan Rabab closer to that of the rudra veena. The most significant version of the instrument was a quaint hybrid -- it grafted a Surbahar-style chamber-resonator at the bottom, to a Rabab-style fingerboard, along with a rudra veena type chamber-resonator at the top. It was a cumbersome instrument to play and was suited, like the Surbahar, only for prefatory movements. Mid-20th century re-engineering of the Sarod for superior melodic delivery, robbed the Sursingar of its relevance.

Swaramandal : The instrument is a member of the harp family and belongs to the box-polychord variety of plucked instruments. Its origins are traced to an ancient Indian instrument, the Mattakokila (Sanskrit for an inebriated Cuckoo), used for accompanying the chanting of vedic hymns. It is now used primarily as an accompaniment to vocal renditions of the khayàla and Thumree genres. Unlike the Sarangi or the harmonium, on which melody is executed, the Swaramandal is only strummed intermittently as a filler of silences. The strumming is done bi-directionally with grown finger nails, or guitar-style metallic or plastic picks. 

The instrument is not a replacement for a Tanpura, and may be used either in addition to a melodic accompaniment, or exclusively. The Swaramandal is, however, not as universally used for vocal accompaniment as is the Tanpura. For some inexplicable reason, Swaramandal accompaniment is much more popular among Pakistani vocalists than Indian vocalists. Attempts at establishing it as a solo instrument for formal Raga rendition have been isolated and futile. 

Tabla: The Tabla is a pair of vertical drums, of which the treble drum is struck with the right hand, and the bass drum is struck with the left hand. Even though the name resembles that of a Persian drum called “Tabl’”, the instrument is considered to be of Indian origin. It could have evolved from one of the many vertical drum-pairs of different sizes and constructions, performed since ancient times in different parts of the country.  

The Tabla gained prominence during the 15th century at the dawn of the modern era in Hindustani music. The Khayal was emerging as a challenger to Dhrupad supremacy, followed later by lighter vocal genres like the Thumree. Soon thereafter, the sprightly Sitar eroded the turf of the ponderous Rudra Veena in instrumental music. Hindustani music now needed a percussion partner of greater agility, delicate playing technique, and softer output than the ancient Pakhawaj. A sophisticated Tabla idiom emerged at the court of Emperor Muhammad Shah II (1719-1748), which was also host to the launch of the Sitar, and the maturation of Khayal vocalism. The Tabla steadily enlarged its role thereafter to finally replace the Pakhawaj.

Tabla Tarang : The term is derived by linking two words : Tabla = the treble drum of the Tabla  pair + taranga = waves. The word describes a polychord of the struck variety, consisting of 12-15 treble drums, each tuned to a different tone/svara of the ràga scale. It is the only Indian instrument to deploy a percussion instrument, or a part of it, to produce melody. Unlike other struck polychords, the tabla tarang is struck with the bare hands rather than mallets or sticks. The instrument has been heard only rarely – either in film or orchestral music -- but is otherwise extinct.

Tanpura : The word derives from Hindi tàna =  a musical phrase/melodic line + Sanskrit Poorak = filler/supplement. This etymology defines its function in Hindustani music. It supplements the aural experience and supports the musician's creative effort.  It performs primarily a drone function as standard accompaniment to vocal music, but is optional in instrumental music. The instrument is a member of the long-necked family of fretless plucked lutes, and acquired a significant presence in Hindustani music from the seventeenth century. Its design may have been inspired by a Persian instrument, called the "Tambour".  The instrument has four, five, or six strings tuned to the middle octave and lower-octave tonic chosen by the musician, along with supplementary strings tuned to corresponding/dominant pitches as permitted by ràga grammar. 

Unlike the Swaramandal, which is strummed only intermittently, the Tanpura is plucked continuously during a performance. However, like the Swaramandal, the Tanpura does not execute melody. Both are designed for a tonally blurred acoustic output, which shapes the acoustic ambience. The Tanpura is, however, valued more for its psycho-acoustic influence on the creative processes of the musician, than for the enrichment of the aural experience for listeners.

Vàna Veena : A member of the box-polychord variety of struck instruments. It is an Indian instrument with a hundred strings, whose description in ancient texts matches descriptions of the Shatatantri Veena and the contemporary Santoor.

Vichitra Veena : A member of the fretless stick-zither family, on which melody is executed by sliding a piece of rounded glass, akin to a paper-weight, along the strings. This instrument is a successor to the ancient ekatantri veena, and a precursor of the Hawaiian slide- guitar. The vichitra veena of the Hindustani [north Indian] tradition is identical to the gottuvadyam of the Carnatic [south Indian] tradition, now renamed chitra veena.

Violin: The Violin entered Hindustani music in the 1930s, almost a century after Baluswamy Dikshitar (1786-1858) had discovered its value as an accompanist to vocal music in the Carnatic tradition. The value of a fretless and bowed instrument for accompanying vocal music had, by then, already been established in Hindustani music by the Sarangi. 

At a time when the Harmonium was pushing the Sarangi off centre stage,  influential leaders of the Hindustani music renaissance – Allauddin Khan, Vishnu Digambar Paluskar, Gajananrao Joshi and SN Ratanjankar – saw merit in introducing the violin to Hindustani music. The instrument has, however, followed different paths in the two traditions. The violin has evolved into a major accompanist as well as a soloist in the Carnatic tradition, while it has remained primarily a solo instrument in the Hindustani tradition.

 (c) Deepak S. Raja, December 2021


Sunday, December 5, 2021

The enigma called “taseer”

I often discussed with Ustad Vilayat Khan the music of famous pre-independence musicians, whom I had not heard personally, but he would have certainly heard. In one of those conversations, the topic drifted towards early 20th century Rudra Veena music.

I had heard a few available recordings of Ustad Dabeer Khan, and thought his music was unrefined compared to the music of recent Beenkars like Ustad Zia Mohideen Dagar and Asad Ali Khan Saheb. Ustad Vilayat Khan chided me by saying – “Your ears have not matured enough yet to appreciate his music. Observe the “taseer” in his music.” I pleaded ignorance and asked him to explain. He said – “Taseer has no definition. When your ears are ready, you will experience it.” The enigma of “taseer” has intrigued me since then.

Taseer is a Perso-Arabic abstract noun, derived from “Asar” = impact/ the ability to elicit an emotional response. Music is, indeed, intended to elicit an emotional response. So, Taseer can seem like a fairly routine reference to respectable musicianship.  In the Hindustani music world, however, the attribution of “Taseer” is a rare honour, bestowed on very few musicians – generally, not more than a handful in each generation. The possession of “Taseer” is, it seems, the highest compliment a musician can pay to another musician. This suggests that the term has come to denote a quality, which words cannot describe, and strictly musical features cannot explain.  

During an interview given a few days before his demise, Ustad Hafiz Ali Khan (Ustad Amjad Ali Khan's father), was asked about the famed “Taseer” of his music, the Ustad said – “Taseer is from God. After one has acquired learning (the taleem) diligently, and put in endless hard work, one has to add prayer to it, offering one’s achievements to the Maker.Then, He blesses him [the musician] with Taseer.” (The interview appeared in the souvenir of the Hafiz Ali Khan Memorial Music Festival of 1975).

(c) Deepak S. Raja. December 2021


Saturday, December 4, 2021

What is music?


Attempts at defining music generally begin with “Structured/ organised Sound”, and end up questioning this definition. A universally acceptable definition may not yet exist. Scholars have, however, devised a workable description, which enables them to pursue their study of musical activity. A brief look at the issues is interesting.

It is argued that “Structure” cannot be part of an acceptable definition because the perception of structure is subjective. The same group of sounds may appear “structured” to some and randomly placed to others. Some also argue that music must be “pleasant” to qualify as music. This view raises the same problem. There is no music that will please everyone in the world. Pleasantness is subjective and hence an imprecise criterion.

Another objection cites sounds in nature – chirping birds, cascading waterfalls. They are structured and pleasant. Can they be considered music? The implication is that music needs to arise from a human intention to communicate. Music, then, becomes music only when there exists is a shared notion of “musicality” between the music maker and the listener. 

This discussion allows us to infer that “musicality” is defined by communicative intent and the existence of a listener.  The emerging modern view suggests that any set of sounds, which engages anyone as “music”, qualifies as music. In short: If you think something is music, it is music. And, if you think it is not music, it is noise. 

Once the issue of “engagement” enters the argument, the context becomes relevant. Sounds that may engage listeners as music in a certain context, may either fail to engage, or be considered “unmusical” in a different context. Music, then, functions a lot like a language which forges a link only between those who understand its “meaning” (communicative intent), which is itself dependent on a specific  context.

Neuro-sciences support the similarity between music and a language because the Broca’s region in the human brain processes both – language as well as music. And yet, music differs from a language in an important respect. A language has words, which represent the information, ideas, or feelings they wish to convey. Music, on the other hand, is a specialist language for communicating emotions, though it is still not clear how exactly it works. That is why a “dictionary” to aid the interpretation of music is not a foreseeable possibility. 

This view does not answer all the issues involved in defining music. It does, however, permit musicologists to study this mysterious area of human experience through musical features and related social contexts.

As a working definition, music is regarded as (a) a combination of sounds and silences (b) produced by humans and/or inanimate objects, incorporating elements of (c)  pitch (melody or harmony), (d) rhythm (tempo, cadence, meter), (e) dynamics (loudness/ volume), (f) and timbre/ texture.

Having defined music thus, we are obliged to also consider the notion of “engagement” critically. Does the engagement of the listener need to possess an “intentionality” which we consider an essential attribute of music-making? Two categories of music prevalent in contemporary society require this question to be addressed – even if controversially.

 (i)    Advertising music: Do we engage with the musical component of advertising/ commercial messages as music? The answer is “no”. Do we even engage intentionally/ consciously with advertising itself? The answer again is “no”. We merely accept advertising in the media as a part of the ecosystem which subsidizes our access to the media. But, does the musical component of advertising influence our behavior? The answer is “yes”, because it would not exist if it did not influence us. Therefore, even if we “engage” only unconsciously/ incidentally with advertising and its musical component, it needs to be recognized as “music” because it satisfies our definition, and has a well-defined social function.

(ii)  Ambient music: Commercial establishments like hotels and shopping malls expose us to music whose presence we are not expected to even notice as music, let alone “engage” with it. We can assume that this category of music is known to persuade us to spend more time and/or money within the host establishment. It is a form of “advertising”, but different because it works subliminally. There is “intentionality” in the transmission of the music, but none in its reception. This music also needs to be recognized as “music”, because it fulfils our definition and performs a well-defined social function.

On these considerations, and specific to the Indian context, it is possible to distinguish between musical endeavours characteristic of different social contexts. (a) Primitive/ tribal music (b) folk music (c) devotional music (d) ceremonial music (e ) martial music (f) popular music (g) advertising music (h) ambient music (i) classical/ art music (j) semi-classical music.

While being useful for scholarly explorations, these categories are all expressions of a single, but complex, culture. Collectively, and separately, they respond to social and economic changes, and also influence each other. Consequently, it is not even certain that this classification will remain relevant for all times to come.

(c) Deepak S. Raja December 2021